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Interview: Rugz D. Bewler Knows 'Harlem Is Still On The Rise'

If you were around when Dame Dash formed an artist conclave out of thin air and called it DD172 in Mahattan’s Tribeca section, then you've probably heard the name Rugz D. Bewler. A born and bred Harlemite raised in borough of America’s smoothest hustlers, Rugz was around when Curren$y was popping, when Big K.R.I.T. was doing his first performances downstairs, and when Stalley first started getting attention. But he always stood out from the crowd as something of a renaissance man---he had a special air of style that extended into hip-hop's traditional sounds while also pushing the boundaries of what a rapper could do today. He was unlike anyone else in the DD172 camp, so when Jim Jones introduced him to Dame, it was a perfect match.

Fast forward to 2013, and DD172 is abandoned, the artists that worked there have drifted entirely apart, and Rugz Bewler is revamping his music career to step back into the limelight. He just released his new project, Bené, which features him spitting wickedly over original beats as well as some recognizable production. Recently, he stopped by VIBE to chop it up about what his journey thus far and why the movie City of God influenced his latest project, Harlem and more. ---Max Weinstein

VIBE: You started out interning at Roc-A-fella, correct
Rugz: Yeah, I was there around the late times. I got there during The Black Album, Purple Haze, around the time that Beanie Sigel got locked up. Dipset had their own section. I wanted to be behind the scenes at first. I thought being an A&R was the shit when it was more of a search. I remember key people that I looked up to when I was interning, and when I read the descriptions of the A&R jobs and I saw it firsthand I thought, ‘This is me. I love beats, I love music. I’m a fan of music so I know what matches with this person.’ I didn’t listen to one genre of music. So I’m like fuck, I can travel, pick people’s beats, and get a check for it? Are you kidding me?
But when I got to the office and I saw people getting checks for not doing shit? Come on, man. I think when I got into the office, I realized that the A&R was dead, because I was seeing ones that weren’t good A&R’s. And no disrespect, but I could have easily taken their job. After a while it was all about connections and “who’s who” instead of “who’s really connected to the streets,” “who really knows what’s going on.” If you don’t know what’s going on, how the fuck can you A&R?

So how did you officially decide to get into rapping for yourself?
I was always writing music. Only person in the office that would listen to my stuff was Tone Hooker. He would gimme the ‘Oh, word?’ but he would also let me get me in the office and write some stuff. I was trying to learn the business first though, and no one wanted to hear me do my music. So, I just kept it to myself and continued to learn about the business. I knew what my brand was gonna be early, and everything is a brand. So I was writing writing and writing. For a while all I was doing was chilling with my boys in the crib, smoking, making songs off beats that weren’t mine, until I had five songs. Then I was investing money in wack ass studio sessions [Laughs].

How did you get together with the DD172 dudes?
I got there through Jim Jones initially. We went down to his studio to record, just because he’s been family from Harlem anyway. So we were recording and I guess he heard one of my lines where I said, “First Dipset break up, now every day I wake up.” So he had a smirk on his face, and he asked my manager why we hadn’t gone down to see Dame. We sort of knew him and had a bit of a relationship with Dame, but we were wondering if we could really get on that level with him and connect about some business. So Jim called him and was like, ‘Listen. I got somebody that you need to hear.’ And I could hear Dame on the phone like, ‘What?’ But Jim insisted so we went down there. First day there I think I recorded two songs, one called “Superbad” and another that you’ll probably never hear. And the music I was making still fit what they were doing there, but it was still out there. It wasn’t so traditionally underground, it had lyrical content but also an appeal for the masses. So I felt like I stood out as soon as soon as I got there, but I was still learning a lot of stuff.

Are you still working with anyone from DD172? (Curren$y, Nesby Phips, Ski Beatz)
Nah. But they’re all still family and friends, I’ll see them for birthdays or whatever, but it’s a new chapter in my life and I’m starting to take control of a lotta things myself in terms of Team Colors. I’m messing with new artists, whether they’re producers, painters, videographers, whatever. I learned things from Dame and I want to apply them to my own situation and handle them at my own speed.

What were some of the things that you learned from Dame while at DD172?
I learned about not waiting on anybody. It can be a gift and a curse, but rolling the dice sometimes isn’t always a bad situation. Everything moves at a fast pace here, this is New York City. I’ve travelled and seen that shit travels at a slower pace elsewhere. Dame just opened my eyes, not to art, but to seeing someone come from where I come from and have an office with murals on the walls. It made me say, ‘Wait a second, I know artists, I know painters, I can support my people.’ So I just started taking things into my own hands. I’m a very secretive person, so I’ll sit down, plot, smoke, jot down ideas until something is ready to be manifested. But I really took the go-getter spirit from Dame. He waits on nobody. He sees somebody doing something, and he says that he can do it better.

I thought of a scenario this morning and want to put it to you. If somebody offered you the ability to be as rich as you wanted to be, but you could never listen to rap again, would you take it?
[Long pause] At this point in my life? Yes. But the honest question is, could you? Rap is so influential across multiple genres, you’d probably have to wipe out a lot of music to stop me from hearing rap somewhere. All this crap out here though? I’m fine.

How do you feel about NY’s rap scene, both the music coming from here and the relationship between artists and the outlets that have a perceived responsibility to support their music?
It’s a bubble. There are some people who are now in power at these outlets that got beat up and pushed down for a long time, and now they’re finally in power, so they can put on whoever they’re fucking with now. It’s a favor system out here. They had to go through the ringer, now they want to put people through the ringer as well. It’s a power trip. And it’s not only relying on wack music because not everything can be great, but sometimes you gotta be real with yourself. We got dope music coming out of New York, but we have people representing it in the wrong way because they fuck with certain people. I fuck with a lotta people in my hood, that doesn’t mean I’ll let you drive my car or watch my kids. I’m tired of going to shows and seeing the same niggas perform for the same fucking shows over a favor. It’s plainly a favor. Or let’s not even call it a favor. Sometimes people really believe in it, but you gotta be real with them if you love them. There’s barely any women there, and if there are women there, they’re bored. You gotta be real with the situation. If they suck, they suck. I’m from Harlem, where we love to snap and joke on each other, but it was all fun. I’ve never heard nobody call me wack, I’m sorry. The most I’ve heard is that I’m different and some people can’t fuck with it. No one’s ever run up on me and called me wack, and if they have, then who’s your man? Who do you believe in? Put him up.

How is your music influenced by your upbringing in Harlem?
I think Harlem is the reason that I am where I am right now. I was always a real mellow person, but the city gave me that aggression, that go-getter attitude. I have a problem keeping my mouth shut about certain things because I’m so passionate, so I’ve found that I can channel those feelings through music and know when to speak and when to be quiet. Everyone won’t always understand where you’re coming from or what you’re saying. But if I sooth you with my voice and some dope lyrics and a dope beat from my man, maybe you’ll be like, “Damn, maybe he is that cool.”
I identify with Jay-Z, because he was doing all the same things as everyone else in the hood, but he didn’t exactly have the same gangster image, and I identify with that. Sometimes the stuff from Harlem that gets pushed to the front and focused on isn’t all that’s going on here. There’s taste and flavor for every person. Just because they do this or that doesn’t mean they’re wack. It’s still an artistic contribution to Harlem.

You mentioned fans becoming friends. I noticed that you don’t indulge in social media too much.
Everything relates. It’s your brand. I have my manager telling me to tweet more, but I’m not gonna do it. It’s about how you portray shit. Why you gotta know every little thing that’s going on? You need these social outlets, but if you know how to be tasteful with tweets, Instagram. I’m sorry but my Instagram is fire. My own manager don’t be clicking likes on my shit, but my shit is fire.

I heard you’re starting a clothing line?
I was into film and fashion before I started getting into the music. I was always into the arts, but fashion was first. I was doing a lot of product placement for a couple Japanese companies, I was styling with one of my boys who really got me into fashion heavy. But I feel like after awhile, if you push this “jack of all trades” shit, people don’t really want to hear that shit. So I thought let me conquer this music.

You sampled Kanye for one of your latest tracks off Bené, “On Point”. Do you identify with his recent views on the fashion industry and it’s exclusive tendencies?
I do, but he should know. He’s been around for awhile, he’s very smart and business savvy. He’s real low, but he shouldn’t feel like he’s that exceptional person that’s gonna get in. There’s years and years of building these brands up. Fendi is old money. They don’t want to be tainted. He should be thankful that Louis Vuitton let him in. I’m trying to grab one, but I ain’t mad. I want to recreate Moschino. I remember those pieces, DKNY, Moschino, shit like that.

What’s the sound of the new project, Bené?
It’s some ghetto God nigga shit. Straight up. It’s a combination of all the types of music that I’ve made before, but I’m more relaxed now. In DD172, I wasn’t being pulled in different directions, but you kind of start to gravitate towards what the people around you are doing. At the end of the day, I’m from the streets. I have a different mindstate, and I wanted to stay true to what I do. I’ve dropped three projects, and this is like the culmination of all three, on some chill shit. Unoriginals, originals. I’m always worried about putting out music, I’m very hands on with everything.
Bené is literally me. Beautiful extraterrestrial nigga eatin’. It’s from City of God, you ever see that? They were showing it at 96th Street and Amsterdam a couple years ago, and an old head told me to go check out the movie because he said there was a character that reminded him of me. So I saw it and didn’t even get it until after when I was smoking and chilling. Seeing how that’s one of my favorite movies, and I’ve always been a diverse person – I go downtown clubbing, I’m in the offices, I’m in the hood. More people used to be that way, but now with politics and technology, artists don’t feel the need to do all that. So I identified with Bené in the movie, because he could fuck with everybody, he was from the hood and the slums, but he could fuck with the cool kids, the hipsters, the girls. He is me. Just another dynamic of my personality. The sound is very traditional, from producers I love and my in-house producers. A lot of it is in Portuguese, so you gotta do a little homework if you want to get it fully. I thought if I was gonna do it, I was really gonna do it.

I remember reading on Twitter awhile ago that you’re a big DOOM fan, right?
Huge DOOM fan. And I don’t even know every lyric of every song, but I’m a huge fan. I’ll be in an interview and they’ll be like, “Oh, you’re a huge DOOM fan? Spit us a verse from ‘One Beer’”. Like you gotta be a motherfucker to know all his lyrics. But it’s not even his raps, it’s the way he carries himself. He has a mask on, there’s nothing socially attractive about him that makes you look at him and say, “Damn, he’s the man!” He’s awkward, but he crushes people and he has a rap code that people can’t really fathom.

Any new artists you’re fucking with?
Toro Y Moi. Been listening to him for awhile. I got on him because I’m a big Vimeo person, and they have these picks for best video on the front page, and his video for “So Many Details” was so sick. So I dug some more and man, I would love to work with him. I ain’t listening to much rap right now, it ain’t happening. The Internet, love their music. I’m fucking with Lana Del Ray. Earl Sweatshirt is dope. Freddie Gibbs too. When he say he a real nigga, I believe that shit.

Having two daughters, how do you balance being a father and a musician?
You don’t. There is no balance. Maybe with a little bit of money, comes balance. There’s just understanding from the families and the mother. She knows what I’m doing. I think my daughters are the reason that I’m going so hard with this. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably still be in the crib, smoking and chilling. Having them in my life pushes me to be the best that I can be for them.

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Nevertheless, money, hoes, and clothes aren't the only things this player knows. He also knows how to win. The following night, after No. 8 scores 22 points as the Lakers thrash the Bucks, he's convinced he'll be just as successful rapping as he is playing on his championship-contending team. "[On the mic] you want respect. If I want something I'm gonna get it. Just buy the album and see for yourself."

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Public Enemy—"Brothers Gonna Work It Out" (Def Jam, 1990)

B: Do you know this song?

K.B.: It's Public Enemy. Everybody knows them. Back in the day, me and my cousin used to do the Flavor Flav dance! My grandma would be like, "Kobe, what are you doing? You got an itch down there?" I'd be like, Grandma, it's the new dance.

B: I used to work at Def Jam—from '89 to '93—and Flav would come into the office and literally take it over. Nothing could be done, workwise, while he was there. One time, he got on top of my desk and was doing his dance. He was like that all the time. It wasn't an act for the stage or videos. That's just Flav.

De La Soul Featuring Pete Rock and InI––"Stay Away" (unreleased bootleg, 1998)

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B: What's the name of your group?

K.B..: Cheizaw. It stands for Canon Homo sapiens Eclectic Iconic Zaibatsu Abstract Words. Canon is the ruler of the spiritual body. Homo sapien is the [scientific] term for human beings. Eclectic means choosing the best of very diverse styles. Icon is a symbol.  Zaibatsu is a Japanese word for powerful family. Abstract makes concentration very difficult. Words, meaning lyrics. That's Cheizaw—that's how we're putting it down. Six members, all from Philly...Illadelph!

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K.B.: I feel that joint to the most. I love the most. Who is that?

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K.B.: Sounds like the melody from that TV show, from back in the day. The one with two girls in it...two roommates...

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B: Well, does it make you happy or sad? Does it make you want to take a sh*t?

K.B.: It makes me...[snaps his fingers and shimmies with his shoulders]. You know what I mean? Ha, ha!

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